Venerable Seraphim of Sarov

Venerable Seraphim of Sarov, a great ascetic of the Russian church, was born on July 19, 1759. The venerable father’s parents, Isidore and Agathia Moshnin, were residents of Kursk. Isidor Ivanovich was a building contractor, and at the end of his life, he began the construction of a cathedral but died before it was completed. Their younger son Prokhor was left in the care of his mother who brought her son up in a strong faith. After her husband died, Agathia Photievna continued the construction of the cathedral. One day she brought Prokhor there with her. He slipped and fell from the belfry to the ground. The Lord saved the life of the Church’s future luminary: his mother, terrified, came down and found her son whole and sound.

Young Prokhor, who had an excellent memory, learned to read early. Since a young age, he enjoyed attending church services and reading aloud the Holy Scriptures and the lives of the saints to his peers. But what he liked best was praying or reading the Holy Gospels in solitude. Once, Prokhor fell seriously ill and his life was in danger. The boy saw a vision of the Mother of God in his sleep, Who promised to visit and heal him. Soon afterwards, a cross procession carrying an icon of the Sign of the Ever-Holy Theotokos passed through their homestead’s yard. His mother carried him outside and let him venerate the holy icon. Soon he was on the mend.

Early in his youth, Prokhor made up his mind to dedicate himself wholly to God and leave for the monastery. His righteous mother did not oppose him and blessed him to become a monk with the copper cross the venerable father wore all his life around his neck.

With other pilgrims from Kursk, Prokhor traveled by foot to venerate the holy God-pleasers of the Caves in Kiev. While at the Kiev Caves monastery, Prokhor visited the monk in great schema Dosipheus, who gave him a blessing to go to the Sarov monastery and seek salvation there. Returning briefly to his parents’ home, Prokhor bid farewell to his mother and family. On November 20, 1778, he arrived at Sarov where a wise elder Pachomius was abbot. He warmly greeted the young man and appointed elder Joseph as his spiritual father. Under his guidance, Prokhor would do all kinds of monastic obediences: he served as the elder’s cell man, baked bread and prosphora, and worked as a carpenter and a sacristan. He performed every duty with zeal and diligence as though he served the Lord Himself. He armed himself against boredom with hard labor. Boredom was, as he later explained, “the most dangerous temptation to the novice monks and could only be cured with prayer, restraint from idle talk, moderate handiwork, reading of the Word of God and patience, as it thrives on faint-heartedness, carelessness and idle talk.”

Prokhor spent eight years as a novice in the Sarov monastery and was tonsured a monk with the name of Seraphim, his new name fittingly expressing his flaming love of God and his yearning to serve Him with fervor. A year later, Seraphim was tonsured into the rank of Hierodeacon. Longing in spirit, he served daily and prayed unceasingly afterwards. The Lord deemed him worthy to see grace-filled visions during divine services, and, more than once, he saw the holy Angels co-serving with the brothers. Father Seraphim was vouchsafed to see a special divine vision during the Divine Liturgy on Holy and Great Thursday with the Abbot Pachomius and elder Joseph presiding. The venerable one, after saying the Troparions, pronounced: “Lord save the pious…”, and, while at the royal doors, he lifted his stole to the people and exclaimed “…and to the ages of ages.” Suddenly he found himself immersed in the ray of a fair light. Looking up, Venerable Seraphim saw the Lord Jesus Christ, walking on air from the western church doors surrounded by the Heavenly Bodiless Powers. Approaching the ambo, the Lord blessed everyone who stood there and then stepped up, transfigured, to His holy icon to the right from the royal doors. Observing the wondrous vision with spiritual exaltation, Venerable Seraphim could neither speak nor move away from his spot. He was led away, taken under his arms, into the altar, where he was left standing for the next three hours, changing in his face illumined by the great act of God’s grace. Following the vision, father increased his fervor: he spent days in the monastery and prayed at nights in a solitary cell in the woods.

In 1793, Father Seraphim was tonsured into the rank of Hieromonk and continued his obediences at church. Shortly before his death, Abbot Pachomius gave his blessing to begin a new life as a desert-dweller and a shut-in. After receiving a blessing from a new abbot, Father Isaiah, the venerable one locked himself in a faraway cell a few kilometres away from the monastery, deep in a thick forest. He spent his days in solitary prayers, returning to the monastery only on Saturdays before the Vigil service. He would then go back to his cell after partaking of the Holy Mysteries during the Liturgy.

Venerable Seraphim led a life of austere asceticism. His prayer cell rule was done according to the rite of ancient desert monastic communities. He never parted with the Holy Gospels and read all of the New Testament in the course of a week, as well as the writings of the church fathers and Service Books. He learned a great many liturgical hymns by heart and sang them while laboring in the woods. He set up a garden and beehives around his cell. Father Seraphim adhered to a particularly strict fast, eating once a day and abstaining from any food on Wednesdays and Fridays. For three years, his only food source was aise-weed, a wild herb that grew beside his cell. During the first week of Great Lent, he abstained from food until Saturday when he partook of the Holy Mysteries. At times the holy elder was so immersed in the prayer of the heart that he stayed motionless for a long time, hearing or seeing nothing around him. The schemamonk Mark the Silent and hierodeacon Alexander visited him occasionally. Finding him immersed so deep in prayer, they would reverently leave him undisturbed out of respect for his contemplative state.

The enemy of mankind, witnessing such great ascetic labors by the Venerable Seraphim, wished to force the holy man out of his solitary life in silence and waged a war against him. The holy elder would guard himself against it with prayer and the power of the Life-Giving Cross. In order to defeat our enemy, Father Seraphim intensified his ascetic endeavors by taking up the labor of stylitism. Every night, he climbed on a rock of great size and, lifting up his hands, prayed: “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” During the day, he prayed in his cell on a rock he had found in the woods, taking breaks only for a short rest and some meager food. Thus the venerable elder spent thousand days and nights in fervent prayer.

Put to shame, the devil conceived to destroy the saint and dispatched thieves who approached Father Seraphim while he was working at his garden and demanded money. Father held an axe in his hand at that moment; he was physically very fit and could easily defend himself. Instead the holy man laid down his axe and said: “Do what you came here for.” The thugs beat him mercilessly, breaking his skull and a few ribs. Then they tied him up intending to throw him in the river later. But first they ransacked his cell, smashing everything. Finding nothing but his icon and a few potatoes, they became ashamed of their own villainy and fled. Venerable Seraphim regained consciousness, crawled to his cell and lay there all night suffering miserably. In the morning, he reached the monastery with great difficulty. The brethren were horrified to see him wounded so severely. Doctors were called in and they were amazed that he was still alive after such a violent assault. Certainly, father was healed not by doctors but upon receiving, in light sleep, of a vision of the Queen of Heaven and the Apostles Peter and John.

After the incident, Father Seraphim spent about five months in the monastery and then left for his desert cell again. He remained hunched for the rest of his life and walked leaning on a stick or axe. Furthermore, he forgave his assailants and asked that they not be punished. After the death of Abbot Father Isaiah, Father Seraphim took vows of silence and completely withdrew from worldly thoughts in order to stand before God with a pure heart in unceasing prayer. If he met anyone in the woods, he would prostrate in front of the passerby and arise again only after the latter moved on. The elder lived thus for about three years ceasing to come to the monastery even on Sundays. The fruit of his silence vows was peace in his soul and joy in the Holy Spirit. The great ascetic used to say afterwards: “…my joy, I pray, acquire the spirit of peace and then a thousand souls around you will be saved.”

А new abbot, Father Niphon, and older brethren in the monastery offered Father Seraphim either to come to the monastery on Sundays for Divine services and Holy Communion or to move back into the monastery. After fifteen years of living in the wilderness, he returned to the monastery in the spring of 1810. In addition to his vows of silence, he shut himself in, neither stepping a foot outside his cell nor seeing anyone fully occupying himself with prayer and contemplation. While there, the Venerable Seraphim advanced to heights of purity of his heart and was divinely empowered with the special gifts of clairvoyance and miracle working. Thereafter, the Lord placed His chosen one to serve people as a holy elder, the ultimate level of the monastic exploits.

On November 25,1825, The Mother of God, accompanied by the two holy hierarchs commemorated on that day, appeared to the elder in a vision and told him to end his seclusion and see anyone requiring instruction, consolation, guidance and healing. Having received a blessing from the abbot of the monastery to make a change in his life’s routine, Venerable Seraphim opened the doors of his cell to all.

The elder saw into the hearts of people, and as a physician of human soul, he healed their infirmities of soul and body through prayer to God and by his grace-filled words. Those coming to Saint Seraphim felt his great love and listened with tenderness to his endearing words as he addressed the people: “My joy, my treasure!” The elder made visits to his far-away hermitage and the spring named Bogoslovsky, where a small cell was built for him. Anytime he left the cell, he would take his knapsack filled with stones. If asked why he was doing so, the elder would answer meekly: “I burden him who torments me.”

In the final period of his earthly life, Venerable Seraphim took special care of his favorite endeavor, a community for women in Diveyevo. While still a hierodeacon, he had accompanied the late Father Pachomius to visit the Diveyevo superior nun Alexandra. At that time Father Pachomius blessed Venerable Seraphim to always keep the Diveyevo “orphans” in his care. He became a true father to the sisters, who turned to him with all their spiritual and material difficulties. His spiritual kin and friends in faith assisted him in his ministry of caring for the Diveyevo monastery: Mikhail Vasilyevich Manturov, who had been healed by father Seraphim from a grievous illness and who accepted his blessing taking upon himself the deed of voluntary poverty; Elena Vasilyevna Manturova, one of the Diveyevo sisters, voluntarily accepted death in place of her brother out of obedience to the elder; and Nikolai Alexandrovich Motovilov, who had been healed by the venerable father and became known as “the servant of Seraphim and the Mother of God.”

In his final years, someone healed by Venerable Seraphim saw him standing on air during prayer. The holy man strictly forbade him telling anyone about it until after his death. Everyone knew and revered Father Seraphim as a great ascetic and miracle-working holy man.

A year and ten months before his passing, on the feast of the Annunciation, Venerable Seraphim was blessed with the twelfth visitation of the Queen of Heaven Who was accompanied by Saint John the Baptist, the Apostle St. John the Theologian and twelve virgin – martyrs and venerable maidens. The Ever-Holy Virgin had a long conversation with the elder and then said: “Soon, my dear one, you will be with us.”

During the last year of his earthly life, Venerable Seraphim became noticeably weaker and spoke often about his approaching end. He was often seen beside his coffin, which had been placed in his cell’s ante-room. The venerable one had marked his burial place himself by the altar of the Dormition Cathedral. On January 1, 1833, father came one last time to the Liturgy at the hospital church of Sts. Zosimas and Sabbatius, partook of the Holy Mysteries and blessed the brethren in farewell, saying: “Save your souls, do not be despondent, be watchful. Today our crowns are being readied for us.”

On January 2, Father Paul, the venerable father’s cell attendant, left his own cell around 6 am, and, on his way to church, smelled something burning. The smell came from Father Seraphim’s cell. When monks opened the door, they found father standing before the icon of the Mother of God in kneeling prayer, already reposed. While he had been praying, the angels had taken his pure soul and flown to the Throne of Almighty God, Whose faithful servant Saint Seraphim had been all his life.

After his righteous death, the recognition of Father Seraphim’s holiness grew and spread even further.  News of new miracles, arriving from all quarters, made it possible. In some places, he appeared in a dream and healed the sick. In other places, water from his spring, even if it was only swooshed around shards of the stone he prayed at, made miracles. In other instances, the sand from his grave or bits of dry bread, distributed at Diveyevo in memory of the bread croutons of Father Seraphim, offered relief.

The canonization of the holy elder took place on his birthday: July 19, 1903.

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